WJ story just one example of why sex offender law should go

Opinion

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By Ben Protess, One View

I am an Oak Park resident and a Northwestern University student. As part of my curriculum, I am working at St. Leonard's Ministries, a 50-year-old halfway house located on Chicago's Westside. Specifically, I am doing research and analysis on child sex offender residency restrictions, that is the laws prohibiting this population from loitering or residing within 500 feet of a school, playground or daycare center.

Over the past two weeks there has been a major crackdown on child sex offenders who violate this law. Among the notable focuses of this effort is former Illinois congressman Mel Reynolds. Reynolds was living across the street from a school before Chicago police officers ordered him and his three children to move. Also, St. Leonard's was housing four child sex offenders who were receiving regular treatment, counseling and supervision from the agency's staff until they were forced to leave the facility because it is located 370 feet from an after school program. Finally, as detailed by Bill Dwyer in wednesday journal ("Oak Parker wonders when his debt to society will end," Feb.9) Alan Meister, an Oak Park resident, was recently arrested for living 460 feet from a day care center. Eight years ago Meister was given probation for having consensual sex with his underage girlfriend and he is now being forced to uproot his wife and three small children to find a new home for his family. These are just three examples of the arbitrary and over zealous nature of this law.

I interviewed two of the former St. Leonard's residents who were required to abandon their comfortable surroundings in order to comply with the state law. Both men told me in detail about the depression they have suffered from since they were forced to leave St. Leonard's. They also feel paranoid because they believe that no matter what they do, their debt to society will never be fully paid.

The move has prompted two of the men to find basement apartments costing three times as much as St. Leonard's. Another former resident is now living in a hotel, paying $120 a week (nearly four times what he paid at St. Leonard's). The other man has not been heard of since his departure and is presumably homeless. Similarly, Meister has had difficulty finding other housing options, moving three times in eight years. As one can imagine, there are few available and affordable houses in the metropolitan area that are not located near a park, school or daycare center.

Nevertheless, certain politicians feel this law is not sufficient in restricting ex offenders. Representative Kevin Joyce is currently introducing a bill in the Illinois House that would limit the number of sex offenders per residence to one. This law would severely limit the positive impact treatment facilities, such as St. Leonard's, have on reducing sex offender recidivism rates.

Despite widespread media reports concerning the danger posed by child sex offenders, their recidivism rates are actually quite low. According to a 2002 study by the US Department of Justice, fewer than 4 percent of released child molesters are rearrested for another sex crime. Further, studies show treatment facilities that serve sex offenders have been proven to decrease recidivism rates. For example, since July, 2001, St. Leonard's Ministries has discharged 46 sex offenders from its program and not one of these men has returned to prison for a subsequent sex offense.

It is abundantly clear that the current law is arbitrary. Why 500 feet? Is that distance really going to keep a sex offender from finding a victim? If a pedophile wanted to find a child to molest he would not need to go to a school or park, he could simply ride the bus or stand on a street corner. Further, according to a 1997 US Department of Justice study, 90 percent of child sex victims know their offender, with almost half of the offenders being family members. Thus, virtually none of the children this law supposedly protects are actually at risk for being attacked. We must question whether this law actually protects our children or is it merely window dressing meant to make us feel safe. The numbers indicate the latter. In the two years leading up to the creation of the 500-foot law, Illinois saw gradual decreases in child sexual assault convictions. Since the law went into effect, such convictions have increased minimally every year but one and have increased as a whole.

The false sense of security this law gives us is what we ought to be fighting against. We need to invest in prevention training so our children can be better equipped to know what to do if they are accosted. Some former sex offenders do not belong within a reasonable distance of a school. However, Alan Meister is the perfect example of why the 500-foot law needs to be enforced on an ad hoc basis, if at all. Likewise, exceptions need to be made for men in treatment facilities like St. Leonard's. You must ask yourself the question, would you rather have a sex offender living in a treatment facility receiving professional care, or be homeless wandering the streets.

The current and proposed legislation do not advance the cause of community safety. Instead, these laws make a large number of people pay for society's concerns with a few. In Iowa, Tennessee and Arkansas child sex offender residency restrictions have been ruled unconstitutional. In 36 other states no such legislation exists. Yet, somehow in Illinois, we have failed to recognize the damage these laws are having on our community. I encourage everyone to write or call our state senators and representatives and demand they vote no to Rep. Joyce's bill as well as consider amending or revoking the 500 foot law.

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